A deep, underground, and uniquely American fault line shifted when Minnesota police murdered George Floyd. His killing shook this country to its historically racist core. Slowly, a subsection of our country is starting to hear and contemplate what minorities have been saying all along — the institutions in this country, by and large, are too old, too white, and too male. Do something about it.
The NFL is one of the most popular and profitable organizations in the country and the blackballing of quarterback Colin Kaepernick is a reminder of the systemic racism interwoven into sport’s fabric. To its credit, Commissioner Roger Goodell has now admitted the NFL was wrong for ignoring Kaepernick’s protest and has campaigned for a team to sign the quarterback.
And while time will tell if these are hollow words, it’s more than we’ve heard from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which just had to cancel next month’s Hall of Fame Game, as well as postpone the induction ceremony due to COVID-19.
Of the 48 media members who constitute the voting committee of Pro Football Hall Of Fame, only six are Black. In a sport that’s 70 percent Black, over 85 percent of the people holding the key to Canton are white. Entrance into the Hall of Fame in the most popular of the four major North American sports is decided upon by one of the least racially diverse groups this side of Augusta National.
Clearly, this homogeneity has had some impact on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection process, and in turn its members.
Former Los Angeles Ram and current Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson didn’t bite his tongue on the matter.
“Hell yeah, are you kidding me? Most definitely. Absolutely,” Dickerson said. He immediately referenced Washington defensive end Dexter Manley as someone who deserves enshrinement. Dickerson then revealed that a writer once told him that his contract negotiations were the reason he wasn’t a unanimous first-ballot Hall of Famer. One writer, he says, voted against Dickerson because he held out during contract negotiations.
“What does that have to do with football?” asked Dickerson, rhetorically. “To me, football is football. It’s not about what you can do for the league, or what a good guy you are. If you’re in the Hall of Fame, you’re in the Hall of Fame because you were a great player. Not because you were a good teammate, or you were good to the media, or you were a good ass-kisser. It’s some guys in there … man, they’re not Hall of Famers. I’ll never say names, but a lot of that has to do with the white writers. They’re going to get their guys in. They’re going to campaign for them.”
If you’re a player with a Hall-of-Fame worthy resume, this is what you can expect five years after retirement: Your name will be a part of an initial primary list, which is whittled down to 25, and later 15 nominees throughout the year. Selectors give “detailed biographies” of each player for debate. Nominees are systematically eliminated until five per year remain. If you’ve survived that gauntlet, you need 80 percent of voters to ratify your nomination.
Jarrett Bell, an NFL columnist for USA Today, is one of the five Black writers with a Hall vote. A 23-year voter, there have been times Bell was the only Black sportswriter with a vote.
“Every year, I walk out pissed off about something,” Bell said. “You go through the process and think this person should be in. So often, people you thought should have been in get passed over. A lot of those people get in over time, but if you don’t get in that year, it’s a whole ’nother year you have to wait.”
That was the case for five-time Super Bowl Champion Charles Haley, who waited 11 years to get in. And then there’s fellow Cowboys Michael Irvin and Terrell Owens, both inducted in their third year of eligibility. Bell thought all three were owed enshrinement much sooner.
As Black writers go, it’s just Bell, Jim Trotter of NFL Media, Terez Paylor of Yahoo! Sports, Eric D. Williams of ESPN, and D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Hall of Fame coach/player turned CBS broadcaster James Lofton also has a vote.
And while Bell stopped short of saying there were cultural or racial biases keeping Black players from Canton, he did acknowledge that while every member of the Hall of Fame was worthy of induction, some of the white members simply didn’t have the same waiting time as Black or minority members.
“Any time you have a committee with such little diversity, it’s fair game to question and wonder if [bias] comes into play,” said Bell. “Sometimes, people may not appreciate a [Black player] as much as a white guy.”
Steve Largent was one of the most dominant receivers in NFL history, surely deserving of the Hall. But how was he one of three modern-era first-ballot Hall of Famers at receiver (the others are Jerry Rice and Randy Moss), a position where Terrell Owens, Issac Bruce, Tim Brown and Andre Reed all had to wait multiple years?
Brian Urlacher starred for the Chicago Bears for 12 seasons as middle linebacker, in one of the few cities where a middle linebacker can be the star of the team. How do his stats compare to other first-ballot Hall of Fame linebackers in and around his era?
Consider Urlacher’s teammate for much of his career: Lance Briggs. Briggs’ 1,173 tackles, 15 sacks, 16 interceptions, and 19 forced fumbles clearly played a huge role in the Bears defense. He’s a seven-time Pro Bowler, who was named first-or-second-team All-Pro three times in his career.
Every voter will say — it’s more than just the numbers. Was Largent’s leadership three times more impactful than the dedication (and risk) of Owens playing in a Super Bowl with a broken leg? Did Brian Urlacher bring so many intangibles he deserved first-ballot enshrinement, while Briggs couldn’t break the list of 25 semi-finalists in his first year of eligibility?
Two players to keep an eye on in the future, says Bell, are Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner.
Wagner and Kuechly were both drafted in 2012. Kuechly was a seven-time Pro Bowler to Wagner’s six. Both were first-team All-Pro five times. Both made the NFL 2010 All-Decade team. Both led the league in tackles in two different seasons. And while Kuechly has a NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year award on his mantel above his fireplace, Wagner’s Lombardi Trophy and two NFC Championship trophies shine a bit brighter.
“When you look at the notoriety and name recognition, it’s Kuechly,” said Bell. “When you look at their play and how they fit as a cog in the defense, it’s Wagner. When you factor in team success, leadership, and quality of play, it’s Wagner. Don’t get me wrong, Kuechly was a great player. But he was so much more popular than Wagner. It will be interesting to see if it has an effect on the voting.”
While player selections get the most public scrutiny, the most damning indictments are in the coaches and contributors sections of the Hall.
One look at Jim Trotter’s Twitter timeline shows he has been openly campaigning for late Steelers scout Bill Nunn to be enshrined. If Trotter gets his way, Nunn will be the first Black contributor enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 60-year history.
“What we fail to take into account is,” Trotter said, “for decades, Blacks were not allowed to be general managers in the NFL — which is not to say they couldn’t be. They weren’t allowed to be. So do we penalize them for that? Because they weren’t GMs? Or with someone like Nunn, do we look at his contributions? In terms of the players he helped the Steelers acquire that helped build that dynasty in the 70s?
Trotter is right. Nunn never played or coached football, but his previous career as a sportswriter provided him connections to historically black colleges and universities — where players are typically under-scouted, even today. Nunn helped the drafting of Hall of Famers Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, and John Stallworth. A strong contingency thinks Steelers defensive end L.C. Greenwood, another Nunn endorsement, should be in Canton as well.
Trotter also feels strongly that former Raiders coach Tom Flores deserves to be in Canton. Of the 13 coaches to win two Super Bowls, 11 have gold jackets. Only Flores, Mike Shanahan and George Seifert have never visited the fitting room. Flores, who is Hispanic, coached the first Wild Card team to win a Super Bowl since the Wild Card’s inception 12 seasons prior, becoming the first minority head coach to win a Super Bowl. He also became the first man to win championships as a player, assistant, and head coach, joined later by Mike Ditka. Flores, the NFL Coach of the Year in 1982, added a second Super Bowl win in 1983, had an 11-5 record vs legendary coach Don Coryell, and Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history, is 0-6 vs Flores coached teams.
And Flores ranks second in playoff-winning percentage among head coaches (minimum 10 games) behind Vince Lombardi. Bill Belichick is a close third.
After 24 years of eligibility, Flores finally made the group of 15 finalists in 2019, but missed the next cut. The Hall of Fame announced an expanded class of 20 finalists in 2020. Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker told Flores he was “almost a shoo-in.”
But Flores found out he was passed over in favor of Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson the same way we all did — on national television, during halftime of the AFC and NFC Championship Games. He didn’t even get a courtesy call ahead of time to let him know he wasn’t selected. It was a feel-good moment for all except Flores, who was “kind of disgusted” at the display. How can Flores be a finalist the year before — when Cowher and Johnson weren’t — and this be the result?
“Sometimes people vote and don’t say anything. They’re like silent assassins,” Bell said about the process. “Normally you can feel the wave or lack of support for some guys, but a lot of times you’ll hear no one say anything negative out loud during a debate but somehow a guy didn’t get in.”
A white voter who’s been present for some of the more contentious debates acknowledged that the selection committee needs to diversify in multiple ways, not only racially, but by adding women and younger voters, as well. While admitting the possibility that unintentional biases may have clouded memories, this voter said he believed race had not seeped into the conversations following the presentations. In Terrell Owens’ case specifically, the voter felt some of the older writers were overly concerned with his off-the-field actions, but that wasn’t the case with younger writers. The voter stressed how more Black writers, more female writers, and younger voters could have added more layers to the Owens conversation and other players like him.
Like Bell, Trotter has left the voting room upset in the past. Owens’ discussion was one of his most memorable, and he remembers it differently.
“The views of (Owens) fell along racial lines in a lot of ways.” said Trotter. “That’s not to say there weren’t white writers who thought, from the beginning, he deserved to go in the Hall of Fame, but it was clear that all of the Black writers felt strongly he deserved to go in first-ballot, and it didn’t happen. All of a sudden, you started hearing comments about character, and all these other things. Truthfully, things that made me uncomfortable… With Terrell it had gone from inside the white lines, to outside the white lines, to the locker room, to the [shirtless sit-ups in the] driveway [press conference]... all these other things that I didn’t feel was fair.”
The electric, explosive, and enigmatic Owens was a handful — not only for defenses but also at times for his teammates and coaches. Admittedly moody as a player, Owens never got in significant off-the-field trouble with the police and is not guilty of the moral misdeeds of many current Hall of Famers.
Owens famously boycotted his own induction, choosing to host his own celebration in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. At the time, he said he was boycotting his enshrinement ceremony because, “it’s not about being first- or second-ballot, it’s about the process in which guys were nominated and inducted. There is a flaw in that system. This is not only about me, but about the guys who came before me and will after me. I can make a stand for those guys, so they won’t have to be in that situation.”
Owens feels just as strongly today.
“Just like the [top positions] in the NFL lack diversity… the Hall of Fame is no different. All of these writers are predominately white, and for whatever the reason is or may have been, as Bell and those guys noticed — it was very contentious… according to the criteria and the mission statement of the Hall of Fame, I met all those criteria. These guys just obviously had something personal against me — and I would have to say, I guarantee you most of them were white.”
Based on Trotter’s comment, T.O.’s guarantee is spot on.
Dickerson is no stranger in holding the Hall of Fame accountable. In 2019, he sent a letter of demands to Commissioner Goodell and Baker, threatening a Hall of Fame boycott if they weren’t met. Dickerson has a vision for lifetime healthcare benefits and proper pensions for all NFL players.
“For me, as a Hall of Famer, I will never wear that jacket again until they start doing right by the players,” said Dickerson. “I gave my jacket to my university. I don’t even want to put it on… I just feel like it’s an embarrassment. It’s nothing to be proud of anymore. It’s a slap in each player’s face.”
Dickerson feels if the Pro Football Hall of Fame voting committee was diverse, many of the issues he has been campaigning for wouldn’t exist. Writers with the importance and influence to document the history of the league surely could use it to intercede on behalf of its heroes.
“Let’s pretend the whole league was white. They would be writing ‘Hey, you’re mistreating the great legends of the game. It’s not right. You’re making all this money and you’re not taking care of the guys who are making the game great. It’s not fair.’” he said. “Instead, you get guys like Drew Brees, who said we just didn’t take care of our money ... the writers should be a 50-50 (Black and white) split, because (there’s) going to be some biases there. That’s what I think. Maybe, they’ll say there aren’t enough Black writers. I personally would say there is.”
Bell would agree. He quickly listed three Black writers who he feels could be voters: Rob Parker, a longtime sportswriter who currently writes for Deadspin, the Undefeated’s Senior NFL writer Jason Reid who covered sports for the Washington Post for years, and Clarence Hill who has covered the Cowboys for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram longer than any beat writer in Cowboys history, and may be as qualified as anyone.
Jean-Jacques Taylor of the Dallas Morning News, Mike Jones of USA Today, Kimberley A. Martin, and Josina Anderson of ESPN all come to Trotter’s mind as other NFL writers who would lend valuable perspective, if given the opportunity.
According to Profootballhof.com:
“The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 48-person Selection Committee is charged with the vital task of continuing to be sure that new enshrinees are the finest the game has produced. The Committee consists of one media representative from each pro football city with two from New York, inasmuch as that city has two teams in the National Football League. There are 16 at-large selectors, all of whom are also active members of the media including one representative of the Pro Football Writers of America, and two members of the Hall of Fame.”
Clearly the text hasn’t been updated since the Rams and Chargers’ relocation (Williams and Howard Balzer represent Los Angeles’ teams), but what’s more concerning — there is no information on how a writer becomes a voter..
“[Becoming a Hall of Fame voter] was never something that was in my thought process, to be truthful.” Trotter said. “... at that time I was a beat writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune, covering the Chargers. I got the call, asking if I was interested in becoming a voter — of course I said yes.”
Trotter got that call in 2007 after more than a decade covering the NFL.
What was the process of becoming a voter?
“There wasn’t one.” said Trotter. “The Hall would have to tell you [how voters are chosen]. But [the Hall] know who the writers and media members are, and they’ll ask other voters… a lot of it is word of mouth, I’m guessing. I never asked… but knowing there was only one major paper in San Diego, it wasn’t surprising.”
The Pro Football Hall of Fame has yet to respond to questions as to how one becomes a voter.
List Owens as one who’s interested in understanding the entire process.
“I didn’t know how it was going to come about, but I felt at some point I needed to address the way that the Hall of Fame, the voting system, how it’s in place, how it’s implemented, and how it affected me. That’s part of the systemic racism that we as a country are fighting against… When you look at the disparity between [white and Black] voters… it needs to be looked at, it needs to be addressed, and it needs to be changed.”
Going forward, will deserving players, coaches and contributors be treated with more dignity than Nunn and Flores? Will the Hall of Fame be better equipped to handle debates like Kuechly vs. Wagner? Will the Hall of Fame be an agent of change in advocating for player treatment?
Will the Hall of Fame voting committee start to look more like the players, coaches, and contributors it’s tasked with evaluating?
Without a tangible and sustained commitment to diversity, it’s unlikely.